Bhutan – The Land of The Thunder Dragons
Bhutan, the land of the peaceful thunder dragon is known to the world by several names such as the ‘the Last Shangri-La’ or ‘the Last Place on the Roof of the World.’ Though the original name from the time of Marco Polo was ‘Bootan,’ the natives prefer to call their country ‘Druk Yul,’ or the Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon. Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, Bhutan offers spectacular mountain views, immense scenic beauty and a unique culture and lifestyle. You can see beautiful Buddhist monasteries, carved wooden houses and the fine crafts of Bhutan, on Bhutan tour.
Facts & Figure
Land area : 38,394 square kilometres
Forest area : 72.5 %
Altitude : between 240 metres and 7541 metres above sea level
Inhabitants : 634,982
Language : official language “Dzongkha”, English widely spoken
Religion : Vajrayana stream of Mahayana Buddhism (Also known as Tantric Buddhism)
Currency : Ngultrum (equal to Indian Rupee)
Capital : Thimphu
Best Time to Visit / When to Visit
The best time to visit Bhutan is springs (March-May) and autumn (September-November). These are the times when the weather is the nicest and most of its festivals and activities held around the same time. During theSprings the flowers and plants are at their peak. The winter can be very cold, but it is a great time to get a view of the mountains. Summer is very rainy, but is a photographers dream because of all the rich forests and plant life. Please make sure you book your travel at least 8 weeks in advance, particularly if you plan to come during the festivals, because it can be particularly difficult to confirm hotels during this time.
Anyone traveling to Bhutan will need to obtain Visa, except Indian travelers. A visa will only be issued once you have booked your trip with an authorized tour operator. It would take 7 days to process the visa request, and airline tickets can be purchased once the visa is approved. The fee to process a visa is $20 and is paid along with the other tour fees. The visa is valid for 15 days from its issuance; anyone wishing to stay longer will have to pay for an extension in Thimphu.
How To Reach
Traveling to Bhutan By Air :
The only international airport in Bhutan is in Paro. Druk Air, which is the national air carrier operates in seven cities in six countries. It operates to and from Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, and Kathmandu.
Travelling Within Bhutan :
All major towns in the 20 districts of Bhutan are accessible by road. Despite high mountains, steep slopes, and the deepest of valleys Bhutan has a relatively well developed network of roads. That said, rarely will one find a length of either straight or flat road. In some stretches one can encounter 6 to 7 bends per kilometre! Steep ascents and descents are characteristic of road travel in Bhutan and this can make travel much slower than one may be used to. Average speeds for road travel rarely exceed 30 km/h, with tourist buses making even slower progress. One is however handsomely rewarded for the long and sometimes tiring car journey, by the spectacular views of towering mountains, lush green jungle, ancient villages and majestic monasteries.
The majority of roads are sealed but can still be bumpy and are almost always single lane. Bhutan’s drivers know their land well and are cautious and careful drivers. The density of traffic is normally very low.
Traveling to Bhutan By Road:
There are only two entry points to Bhutan. While most travelers arrive by air at Paro, some arrive by road at Phuntsholing, which lies on the southern border with India. In either case, tourists have to fly in as well as out by the national carrier, Druk Air. Druk Air has no interline agreements with other carriers. Hence, tourists need to arrange for their own tickets to and from wherever they connect with Druk Air, as that is the only airline that flies into Bhutan. The flight from Kathmandu to Paro provides the most spectacular view of Himalayan vistas of any scheduled flight. Druk Air does not issue tickets until they have received the visa clearance. Paro airport is less than two hours from Thimphu. By road Kathmandu is the best place from where you can start Bhutan tour.
The largest and most colorful festivals take place at Bhutan’s dzongs and monasteries once a year, especially in honor of Guru Rimpoche. They are normally celebrated in spring and autumn. Tsechus consist of up to five days of spectacular pageantry, masked dances and religious allegorical plays that have remained unchanged for centuries. Besides being a vital living festival and an important medium of Buddhist teaching, tsechus are huge social gatherings. Bhutanese revel and exult together, dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry, in a welcoming ambiance where humor and devotion go hand in hand. For guests, the tsechu provides an ideal opportunity to appreciate the essence of the Bhutanese character.
Tsechus are Buddhist festivals which celebrate Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. These festivals are held in every district in Bhutan and is a celebration of deep faith. These festivals display spiritual dancing and singing and the performers wear masks and elaborate costumes. These festivals are held on the 10th day of the Bhutanese month and can last up to four days.
Ache Lhamo Dances
This festival takes place in Ura, Bumthang on the eighth day of the seventh month of the Bhutanese calendar. The girls go up the mountain to make offerings and dance, when they return in the evening they bring flower offerings to the temple. They also perform the Ache Lhamo dance, which is native to this area.
This three day festival begins on the 28th day of the sixth month in Bhainakha, Kenmon, Changmadung and Tokaphu in Trashi Yangtse. Two rival teams have firefights on the first night. The following day Buddhist scriptures are carried throughout the villages to bring blessings upon the people. There are additional religious ceremonies the following day.
Places of Interest
The Trashichodzong, or the fortress of the glorious religion, is the seat of government and the headquarters of the clergy in the capital Thimphu.
The original dzong was built in 1216. It suffered three major fires over the centuries and was rebuilt three times. It was enlarged in the 1960s to become the symbol of the new capital after Punakha.
This dzong housed the original National Assembly of Bhutan in one of its temples. It still houses the secretariat and throne room of the King of Bhutan and the headquarters of the Royal Government’s Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. The Dzong is the summer residence of the clergy.
The town of Paro in western Bhutan also attracts tourists with its scenic locales, beautiful landscapes, wooded villages and historic buildings. The Rimpung Dzong or Paro Dzong stands on a hillside above the gently meandering Paro River. The Ta dzong is an ancient watchtower where the National Museum has been housed. The National Museum and the famous Taktshang Monastery are both located here. Kyichu Iyakhang, one of the holiest temples of Bhutan lies 8 km from Paro. The Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) is a pilgrimage place that every Bhutanese tries to visit at least once in a lifetime.
The broad Paro valley is the entry point for all visitors flying into Bhutan on the national carrier, Druk Air. As the plane takes a dramatic sweep into Paro, the flight captain usually warns relieved passengers not to worry if the aircraft’s wings appear to be almost touching the mountainsides. Paro lies at an elevation of 2,280m. Places to visit include the Paro Dzong, the National Museum housed in a round fortress called the Ta Dzong, and the ruins of the Drugyal Dzong, a 17th century fortress that used to keep invading Tibetan forces at bay, destroyed in fire in 1951.
It is also known as the Rinpung Dzong which means a “fortress that sits on a heap of jewels”. This imposing dzong located above the Paro river is a fine example of Bhutanese architecture with its inward sloping walls that rise to an impressive height.The dzong was built in the 16th century on the foundation of a monastery built by Guru Rinpoche
The Tiger’s Nest or the Taktshang is one of the most popular spiritual heritage sites, perched precariously on the rock face of a sheer cliff 2950m above the ground. It is a short climb of 1.5 hours to 2 hours to the top. For those less inclined to climbing, you can catch a good bird’s eye view from the bottom of the monastery.
Lying in the centre of Bhutan, Trongsa is of great importance in the history of Bhutan. Both His Majesty King Ugyen Wangchuck, who was elected the country’s first hereditary monarch, and his successor, King Jigme Wangchuck, ruled the country from Trongsa’s ancient dzong. The present King continued this tradition when he was appointed Trongsa Penlop in 1972 shortly before he ascended the throne of Bhutan. Trongsa Dzong is an awe-inspiring and impregnable fortress. It has a labyrinth of temples, corridors and offices holding court over the local community. Trongsa is one of the quaintest and most charming of all Bhutanese towns. Its vista is traditional in appearance with wooden slatted houses lining the side of the hill.
About four hours’ drive from Wangduephodrang is the central district of Trongsa, at an elevation of 2000 m. It is the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family and from where the first two kings ruled the kingdom.
Long before you reach it, you see the resplendent Trongsa Dzong in the valley centre. Its labyrinth of temples, corridors, offices and living quarters for the monks add up to a masterpiece in Bhutanese architecture preserved through professional restoration in 2004.
Trongsa is a convenient place to halt for the night if you are travelling to the east or the south of Bhutan. The Trongsa Tsechu (festival) usually falls between late November and mid-December.
Punakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan and lies at an elevation of 1,220m. It takes approximately 2 1/4 hours drive from Thimphu across Dochu-la pass (3116m). Once you cross the pass, you wind down into a warm fertile valley and meander along a gently flowing aquamarine river that leads you to the Punakha Dzong. Built in 1637, the Dzong is a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture, sitting at the fork of two rivers, portraying the image of a medieval city from a distance. The Dzong was destroyed by fire and glacial floods over the years but has been carefully restored and is, today, a fine example of Bhutanese craftsmanship.
Punakha is a sub-tropical valley where food grains, vegetables and fruits grow in abundance. A short drive up the valley is the Khamsum Yulley Chorten (stupa), constructed in 1992, as one of three such chortens in the world, one being the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu.
The Punakha Dzong was known in ancient times as the Druk Pungthang Dechhen Phrodang or “the palace of great happiness”. It is the second dzong to be built in Bhutan and was the seat of government when Punakha was the capital of Bhutan. Today, the dzong is the winter home for the clergy.
The dzong’s central tower, the utse, is six storeys high. The history of Punakha Dzong is characterised by damage from numerous fires, floods and earthquakes. Major renovations took place after the glacial floods of 1994 which damaged parts of the exterior of the dzong. An impressive prayer hall has also been built after the latest fires in 1986.
Wangduephodrang is akin to an extended village with a few well-stocked provision shops featuring food and dairy products. The village is located south of Punakha and is the last town before you arrive in central Bhutan. The higher reaches of the Wangduephodrang valley provide rich pastureland for cattle. The entire region happens to be known for its fine bamboo artisanship, stone carvings, and slates. Your travel in Bhutan is incomplete without visiting this picturesque hamlet
The spiritual heartland of Bhutan, Bumthang, is where the most ancient and precious Buddhist sites are located. It is the home to the most important dzongs, temples and palaces.
Wangdichholing Palace, the residence of the former king, Ugyen Wangchuk; the temple of Jambey Lhakang, the sacred cave of Kurjey Lhakang; and the largest Bhutanese dzong, Jakar, are all located here.
Bumthang (Elevation 2,700m) is often described as the spiritual heartland of the kingdom. There are numerous monasteries and spiritual sites in this charming valley where history and mythology help to bring alive much of Bhutan’s culture and traditions. Bumthang is a picturesque valley of beautiful houses, and fields of buckwheat, barley and apples.
A strong sense of spirituality pervades the atmosphere and, at auspicious times of the year, the valley resounds with the chants of the spiritual community as temples all over offer prayers for the well-being of all sentient beings. Some of the well-known temples include Kurjey Lhakhang (associated with Guru Rinpoche, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet), Jampey Lhakhang (dating from the 8th century) and the historic Jakar Dzong. Bumthang’s tsechus are well-known and even its small local festivals are a privilege to attend to catch an insight of the culture and spirit of Bhutan.
For those with enough time on their hands, venture into eastern Bhutan for something quite different. This is the land of the Sharchops who speak their own language and nurture their own culture and weave beautiful textiles.
Mongar is an exciting eight hours drive from Bumthang. You will pass through the Thrumshing La (pass) that peaks at 3,750 m. Main attraction in Mongar is the Mongar Dzong, which was built at the request of the third king in 1953 and is more modern than most dzongs in Bhutan (architecturally it looks the same).
The largest town of eastern Bhutan, Trashigang is located on the eastern side of Mongar and is about three hours drive from the latter. Major attractions in and around Trashigang include temples, monasteries, a weaving center, a school for the blind, and Sherubtse College, which was the first college in Bhutan. You will surely want to visit the Trashigang Dzong. You can also have a taste of Bhutanese cuisine at several local restaurants.
Chazham (iron bridge), a 73m long suspension bridge, is an interesting sight in the region. Initially there was a chain-link bridge here that was built by Thangtong Gyalpo, a Tibetan bridge builder, in the 15th century. The remains can still be seen here, and the chain is on display in the Trashigang Dzong.
The temple Gom Kora is just a few kilometers away from Trashigang. There is a large black rock behind the temple, and it is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated here. There are some impressions on the rock which are said to be the impressions of his thumb, his hat, and his body. About two kilometers from Gom Kora is an abandoned iron chain-link bridge behind Duksum village, which is the last remaining bridge of those built by Thangtong Gyalpo.